Photo from a labor camp for Filipino farmworkers. The author’s parents are in the center, holding her older brothers.
Mama saw her boss, Jack Radovich, standing in her row during a sweltering San Joaquin afternoon. She was picking table grapes alone when he suddenly appeared, several yards away, gazing off in the direction of the blue-gray Sierra mountains. She assumed he was surveying his vineyards, visiting his farmworkers like he aways did. He was a hardworking landowner, who usually let his young sons build and deliver the packing boxes with a beat-up, sunburnt pickup truck. The kind of boss who always seemed to know when the grape packers needed more boxes. He didn’t call out or turn toward her, but she hurried his way, eager to be the first one from her team to claim the boxes. Daddy was her foreman.
We demanded, we begged, we guilt-tripped our parents for money. We had reached the age where we cared about our image. We no longer accepted garage sale clothes or Kmart blue-light sale items. We wanted the hip-hugging, sailor-pant flap Chemin de Fer jeans, we wanted the upside-down-U-stitch-on-the-butt Dittos, we wanted the iconic Ralph Lauren polo, and we wanted the clunky Connie Clogs. We wanted the clothes our American middle school classmates strutted around in.
In 1976, when I was eight years old, my Korean American father, a produce wholesaler and former farmworker, decided to become a full-time farmer. My Japanese American mother, descended from a long line of farmers and farmworkers, wanted it too. They had spent their childhoods dreaming of a home on the land, so we moved from Los Angeles to a tenant farm thirty-five miles away.
in the coachella valley
children go to school and learn how to internalize silence
girls sit pretty with pigtails wrapped in bubble-ball hair ties
learn how to cast their eyes downward
so that when they ask the class what do you want to be when you grow up?
boys respond, i want to work in the fields like my dad
I met Jacinta in the migrant camp where we grew up. I remember that it was the beginning of June, a few days into the start of the harvest. At that time, Jacinta had lived for nine springs—she was two years younger than me—and for obvious reasons she still used her given last name, López del Campo. Those of us who saw her timidly climb the stairs and enter the last shack, which served as our classroom, with her butterfly notebook pressed to her chest and her gaze glued to her sun-toasted legs, never imagined that in less than ten years she’d be proclaimed the artistic heir to Joaquín Murrieta, a figure shrouded in dustbut fondly remembered within the Mexican communities settled in the central lands of California.
This piece is an excerpt from The Cemetery Boys, a novel in progress.
Sunday had arrived—Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord thy God—and brought with it a strong exhale that breezed over various labor camp sites of the San Joaquin Valley. Resourceful worshipers set up sanctified spaces and stretched borrowed tarps between sun-scorched oaks to contain the cool shade. The ground was covered in the white grime of harvest dust. The traveling priest presided in front of his truck’s flatbed, renovated to serve as an altar for Catholics, but for anyone, really, who had a righteous belief in divine intervention, joyous faith in a higher power.
This feature is part of our print and online portfolio of writing from the immigrant farmworker community. Read more online or in Issue 26.
The early life of Juan Felipe Herrera (b. 1948), the U.S. Poet Laureate emeritus, was shaped by the farmworker’s cycle of seasonal work. His poetry, rich in Mexican pop culture, distills a unique music. He is the author of Akrilica (1989), Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream (1999), and 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 (2007), among other books. In this dialogue with Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor at Amherst College and the editor of The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, which took place in Los Angeles, California on April 19, 2023, he reflects on his formative experiences as a poet defined by an itinerant childhood.
Farmworker Days: Ilan Stavans in Conversation with Juan Felipe Herrera
This fall, half of The Common’s new issue will be dedicated to a portfolio of writing and art from the farmworker community: over a hundred pages filled with the stories, essays, poems, and artwork of immigrant agricultural workers. The portfolio, co-edited by Miguel M. Morales, highlights the work of twenty-seven contributors with roots in this community.
An online portfolio will also accompany the print issue, giving more space for these important perspectives. This feature is the first of several that will publish throughout the fall. Click the FARMWORKER tag at the bottom of the page to read more, as pieces are added.
Poetry Feature: Poems from the Immigrant Farmworker Community
I could tell you, If I wanted to, What makes me What I am.
But I don’t Really want to— And you don’t Give a damn.
—Langston Hughes, “Impasse”
There are two cops from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. We are all gathered around the kitchen island silently negotiating the power dynamics. Two Black women, two White cops. The cops have come to collect the details for the report, but I’m doing most of the talking. Grammy bears witness.
I walk slowly, each step sinking a little into the ground. With every footfall, a puff of ash curls upward, dusting the top of my boot and disappearing into the soft stillness of the day. It is a clear day with no clouds, but the air around me has a gentle haze, a film that sometimes resolves into particles, pinpoints of ash in a slanting ray of sunlight. It has been two months since the fire, but the rising ash and the smell of smoke are strong, stinging the back of my throat and settling into a familiar ache in my temples.